Settlement in the Dexter area began in the early 1850s, but did not occur on a large scale at this time, as it was located closer to the unhealthy swamps in the southern part of the county and away from the more established region around Bloomfield.
After the Civil War, plans resumed for the construction of an east-west railroad that would connect the Ozarks with Cairo, Illinois and the vital Mississippi River trade. Work on a railroad had begun in 1859 but was halted by the outbreak of war. Eventually named the Cairo, Arkansas, and Texas Railroad, it was gradually extended west to Poplar Bluff, the first train operating in September 1873.
The arrival of the railroad spurred settlement of the south-central portion of Stoddard County, and in 1873, Liberty Township was organized, with lots being sold for the creation of a town in the center, near the new railroad depot. According to most accounts, the new community was dubbed "Dexter" in honor of a race horse belonging to one Mr. Dex, a prominent landowner in the area. The first lots were sold on July 4, 1873, considered to be the official "founding" of Dexter.
With the presence of the railroad, the town grew rapidly, profiting first from the clearing and sale of timber from the nearby swamps, then from the conversion of ex-wetland to agriculture. A thriving business district developed on higher ground along Stoddard and Walnut Streets, followed by prominent churches, a school district established in 1880, and many stately homes.
Though the timber and railroads ceased to be quite as important to the local economy by the mid-20th century, the presence of large deposits of gravel and clay nearby, as well as trade opportunities provided by the intersection of major highways in Dexter, maintained the town's prosperity. Since 1900, it has been the largest town in Stoddard County, and among the larger ones in Southeast Missouri at large.
Dexter is located in south-central Stoddard County, about five miles south of Bloomfield and eight miles north of Bernie. The intersection of the county's two major roads, U.S. Route 60 (east-west) and Missouri State Highway 25 (north-south), lies on the northeastern edge of town. U.S. Route 60 connects Dexter with Poplar Bluff, about 30 miles to the west, and with Sikeston, about 20 miles to the east, with Cairo and the Mississippi River another 25 miles beyond.
Most of Dexter lies on Crowley's Ridge, though since the ridge narrows significantly just to the south, portions of the town are in the flatlands to the east and west. The town has an average elevation of 371 feet.
Dexter has a humid subtropical climate, meaning it generally has hot summers and cool winters with an abundant amount of rainfall. In January, the average temperature is 43°F during the day and 26°F during the night, while the average high and low temperatures in July are 92°F and 70°F, respectively. Dexter averages about 48 inches of rainfall annually.
At the 2010 census, Dexter had a total population of 7,864. There were 3,359 households, with an average household size of 2.28. 97.1% of the inhabitants were White, 0.5% were African-American, 0.5% were Native American, 0.2% were Asian, 0.2% were of some other race, and 1.4% were of two or more races. Hispanics of any race were 1.9% of the population.
The median age of the population was 40.5 years. 22.9% of residents were under the age of 18, 8.3% were between 18 and 24 years old, 24.4% between 25 and 44 years old, 24.8% between 45 and 64 years old, and 19.8% 65 years old or older. The sex ratio was 45.6% male, 54.4% female.
According to the 2017 American Community Survey, the median household income was $33,813, and the median family income was $44,539. The median income for men was $38,717 and $25,636 for women. The city's per capita income was $19,164. About 18.4% of families and 22.2% of the population was below the poverty line, including 29.9% of those under age 18 and 8.7% of those age 65 or over.
As with most towns in Southeast Missouri, farming and local trade were vital to Dexter's economy throughout much of its history. Though agriculture remains important in the region, its mechanization in the mid-20th century has caused fewer people to be employed. However, Dexter's central location at the crossing of two major highways has caused it to retain its importance as a commercial center for much of Stoddard County, with Wal-Mart, Town & Country Supermarkets, and other retail chains located in the town.
Manufacturing, health care and related services, and retail trade are the most common occupations. Several manufacturing enterprises have been located in Dexter over the years, including the International Hat Company, a St. Louis-based industry with several production centers. Current industries include Faurecia Emissions Control Technologies, LLC, and Tyson Foods.
The older downtown area, around Stoddard and Walnut Streets, contains a number of specialty stores and upscale restaurants, with most of the service-related businesses clustered along Business Loop 60 to the west. Notable restaurants in this area include Fiddler's, Hickory Log, Dexter Queen, and Dexter BBQ, now a regional franchise with locations in several Southeast Missouri communities.
Dexter's public school students are served by the Dexter R-XI School District, first organized in 1880, with a high school being added in 1895. It is now a PK-12 public institution, consisting of four schools:
-Southwest Elementary School (PK-2)
-Central Elementary School (3-5)
-T.S. Hill Middle School (6-8)
-Dexter High School (9-12)
The district enrolls about 2,100 students. Its mascot is the Bearcat, and its colors are red, black, and white.
Dexter is served by one radio station, KDEX, broadcasting in 1590 AM and 102.3 FM. Owned by the Dexter Broadcasting Company, it began operations in 1956. There is one newspaper, the Dexter Daily Statesman, now owned by the Daily American Republic in Poplar Bluff.
There are no network television affiliates in Dexter, but the city is home to a local station, YHC-TV, serving most of Southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas.